Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Engines of the Meritocracy

Ross Douthat, NYT designated right wing columnist, Harvard '02, has written a slightly schizophrenic column (The Secrets of Princeton) on the role of the Ivy League in preserving and breeding privilege. His column was ostensibly provoked by the woman who wrote a column telling Princeton women to marry her two Princeton sons - an offence tantamount to class betrayal in his eyes.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

I call his column schizophrenic because he keeps wanting to make it about class privilege when in fact the system has a strong meritocratic bias. For example, he wonders:

...why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.

Now it's true that every President since Reagan has had a Harvard or Yale degree (or both) but, except for the two Bushes, none was a child of privilege. Among the other post FDR Presidents, only Kennedy had a monied background, and he was of the first generation in his family born to wealth, so for most of these, the Ivies were a about reaching the elite rather than preserving it.

Rather than merely just preserving the existing elite, the top schools are more about bringing in a trickle of the most talented to refresh it.